Saturday, May 06, 2006

Libertyland And Coliseum Futures Must Hit Civic Targets

Everybody’s all for government acting more businesslike until it affects their special cause. This comes to mind when we listen to some of the arguments from grassroots leaders who insist that Libertyland and the Mid-South Coliseum must remain open.

We applaud their willingness and their determination to have a voice in the public decision-making process. It’s just hard to see how they end up on the “winning” end of this debate.

First of all, there is the deliberate, inexorable movement by city government to cut expenses. The current budget woes demand it, but in addition, that’s what we voters kept telling city officials like Chief Financial Officer Robert Lipscomb that we wanted.

The city owns 60 percent of the Coliseum and apparently most of Libertyland, and it leans toward closing both and using the land for development that would be an anchor for rebirth of the area.

With the neighborhood redevelopment plans of the University of Memphis on the east and the Fairgrounds redevelopment on the west, this critical section of Memphis could then get the economic shot in the arm that it deserves. When you consider the growing strength of Cooper-Young, it is not hard to imagine a completely new set of uses for the Fairgrounds property that could bridge Cooper-Young and the neighborhoods just to the east of the Fairgrounds all the way to the U of M.

Fairgrounds Redevelopment

Redevelopment of the Fairgrounds creates a 365-day-a-year force for improvement, rather than the intermittent bursts of activity at the Coliseum and Libertyland, the deteriorating buildings whose highest and best use seems to be as sites for flea markets, and the expansive (and empty) asphalt parking lots that stretch for blocks.

In the end, discussions about future uses of the Fairground property, including Libertyland and Coliseum, need to centered on identifying the uses that can strengthen the adjacent neighborhoods, spark new investments in the area, spur economic growth and stabilize and increase property taxes.

The current uses just don’t hit the mark on any of these.

If the current uses are to remain, it seems to mean that government must throw good money after bad at the Coliseum, where the deficit now is about $400,000, and it must adopt Libertyland from the Mid-South Fair, which has been paying the thumbnail theme park’s deficits for years.

City of Memphis officials have been driving these key decisions, but a sense of urgency has developed around the Coliseum when county government announced that it wouldn’t pay its 40 percent of the deficit, causing the city to announce that the building would be closed. However, since that announcement, Mayor A C Wharton, after a meeting with renters of the building yesterday, now seems to be reconsidering. It has all the appearances of the classic political dilemma in these joint city-county projects. In truth, none of the staff on either side of Main Street thinks that it makes any sense to keep the Coliseum open, but neither side wants to be the ones that take responsibility for locking its doors.

Bring A Check

And yet, the problem seems simple. If all these tenants, who are imploring Mayor Wharton to keep the building open, want to make it happen, they need only come up with a plan for the rents to be raised to cover the $400,000. That of course isn’t practical, but then again, there are no practical options for the building’s future in the first place.

Consultants told the city and county six years ago that the building should be shuttered, unless there is someone who wants to buy it, operate it and pay all expenses. Nothing has changed, and if that recommendation had been followed, city and county governments would already have saved several millions of dollars.

Keep in mind that the city and county governments don’t pay the operating deficit at FedEx Forum, and it seems to be a prevailing trend in city governments around the country to get out of the building management business. It’s just not something government is good at.

If proponents for keeping the Coliseum open are to gain any traction in their arguments, they need to develop a more persuasive case. The justifications that the city needs the Coliseum because some renters need fewer seats or can’t afford more rent doesn’t really move opinion on this issue. After all, government – more precisely, we taxpayers - doesn’t have the obligation to operate venues of various sizes solely to satisfy the particular needs of a specific tenant, whether it is the jury commissioner or the Liberty Bowl’s pregame buffet.

In the end, like most things, it comes down to money. The public has been telling government for years that it should act more like a business. The balance sheet is bleeding red ink, and unless someone can submit a funding plan along with their petitions, this discussion is actually over.

We’re just going through the motions until the inevitable (and logical) choice is made by city government – to redevelop the property in a way that creates more stability and economic growth for this key section of the city.


Anonymous said...

The debate about closing the coliseum and libertyland is pointless until we get into a "real planning" process that is coordinated with real planning for Shelby Farms, Mud Island, and the Pyramid. A "real planning" process would look at demands (effective buying power) and expressed needs of the population in Memphis region and figure out how Mud Island (and riverfront), Fairgrounds and Shelby Farms can work together to satisfy demands (i.e. users pay for new or existing attractions) and needs taxpayers are willing to support. The right questions are not being asked, and there is too much fragmentation of decision-making

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: We frequently make the point here that we never seem to ask the right questions. We start trying to solve a specific problem, when what we need to do is step back, and ask a larger, framing question that can produce more innovative answers. Good point. SCM

mike said...

The Coliseum can and should fill an important space in this city's music venue options. Ever wonder why the concert scene in Memphis seems so dead? Why so many great artists and bands from Memphis seem to have to leave in order to develop and succeed? It's because, after the FedUp Forum, you drop precipitiously down to the New Daisy for the next largest concert venue! (Excluding the Coliseum.)

For any concert scene, that's a crippling gap. The question we should be asking (to borrow from SMC's comment below) is how to make the Coliseum building a going concern that minimises, if not eliminates, City and County subsidies. It may be that they need to shoulder the costs of rehabbing the building in order to sell it or long-term lease it to an entrepreneur who can make it a profitable enterprise. I'd be OK with that.

Any plans for the Fairgrounds area should also assume the Coliseum stays, and work to integrate development around it.

Memphis is phenomenally short sighted about such things. We let Beale Street collapse so that private developers could use City property to recreate it as a Disneyfied "drunk zone." We let Stax be destroyed for lack of $50,000 so that hundreds of thousands could be spent to rebuild it as a museum. We let the Pyramid go by the wayside to satisfy a private businessman with a brand new, and unneeded, Forum. We should not let the Coliseum fall away only to have to build something new later for tens of millions of dollars! A few million soon will save us an order of magnitude in dollars later.

BTW, in the post SMC wrote: "After all, government – more precisely, we taxpayers - doesn’t have the obligation to operate venues of various sizes solely to satisfy the particular needs of a specific tenant ...." Too bad no one recognised this before government got involved with the Pyramid, the Cannon Arts Center, the Forum, Mud Island, Harbortown, Uptown Memphis, etc.

The City (and County) are offering up the Fairgrounds at pennies on the dollar to developers who will reap enormous profits from the whole thing. Period. What really lit the fire under the whole thing is the Kroc donation to the Salvation Army Memphis, combined with the City's financial crises (which made routinely pouring money into declining properties unsupportable). Up til then, the City and County were content to allow the whole area to decline under benign neglect.

It seems it's going to take another Overton Park-style public movement to make sure certain parts of the fairgrounds don't get lost, and that valuable public land isn't handed over at a loss to the City.

Smart City Consulting said...


We don't see a realistic future that keeps Libertyland and the Fairgrounds open that doesn't perpetuate the air of slow decay that characterizes the Fairgrounds. The ultimate question is what is the area's highest and best use. It's hard to make a case for a worn-out theme park that never made money and an out-of-date arena hosting a batch of catch-all events.

The Coliseum has never filled a niche for Memphis musicians, except for Elvis. They lifeblood for these musicians are our clubs, and keep in mind that the DeSoto Center is just as much our venue as the Coliseum. And by including it in our arena mix, we get to let our neighbors to the south pay some of the freight for these public facilities.

Then there is the Orpheum, Cannon Center, and Mud Island Amphitheatre. The real question for Memphis music lovers is how any of these put any money in the pockets of the musicians we care most about -- our own.

Back to our original point, government doesn't have the obligation to operate venues of different sizes. To punctuate that point, the music business is slowly moving away from the grand tours and back into theater shows. In the end, the old Coliseum may be too big for most acts, and if smaller seating is needed, sections of the Forum can be configured to make that happen. And at the Forum, we don't have to pick up any operating costs.

This is an interesting issue, and we may be proven wrong, but we see no Overton Park-style revolt on this one. The Fairgrounds is a disgrace, no civic jewel, and as we said, if the advocates want to save these facilities, they need to figure out a way to do it without calling on taxpayers to help out (except for transferring the existing assets to them).

Thanks for the thought-provoking comments. As usual.


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